Ruth Rosen Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Women's Movement in Historical Perspective: Conversation with Ruth Rosen, historian and columnist; 12/5/01 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 6 of 7

The Role of Journalism

Let's pick up this thread in your life story, which is the thread of being a journalist. You've gone back to that and now are the opinion page writer and also a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. How do you feel about becoming part of the public discourse in that way? How does that role contribute to the changing of consciousness on public issues? What is the importance of that kind of role in our society?

I see a distinct difference when I'm involved. For eleven years I was a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and it was interesting that the editor there allowed my column to be in the middle of the page or on column left because I wrote on such a variety of issues that weren't standard, they weren't particularly liberal -- they were gender issues, they were cultural issues. So I had a distinct difference. I'm noticing now on the editorial board, I will choose issues that we should write about and offer myself to write about them, about things that people wouldn't think about because they don't know about them. So I've written a whole series of articles on Afghan women and the need for them to be at the table, and what's going on internationally, what kinds of moves are being made to make sure that they have security and protection and democratic rights in some newly formed government. There are a zillion women's issues that I will suggest all the time as items that should be editorialized about that my colleagues, as receptive as they are to those ideas, just may not have [thought of]. I'm the only woman on the editorial board, and I can see the difference.

But there are other differences. I will often suggest historical issues, because I'm a historian as well. I will also often affect various issues that have to do with peace and war, because I've been concerned with peace and war all my life now, all my adult life. So there are issues like the militarization of space, which is not what someone would think I would write about, but actually I found very, very important and very scary.

So I've actually written about a lot of things that go back and draw upon my whole life experience, my whole academic experience, my whole intellectual experience. And there's no question that my voice brings certain kinds of obsessions and concerns that other people wouldn't offer up in a paper.

It sounds to me like the goal is to write something so that people will read it and say, "Hey, I hadn't thought of that!"

Exactly.

So what does it take to do that? In other words, what is the art in that kind of writing?

The goal of every column and every good editorial should be that you have an educated reader reading it and they say, "I never thought of it that way," or "I never even knew about this." Either you want to surprise them with information that they don't know about, so you've educated some of them and they feel like they've taken something away, or you want to talk about something that's very familiar but turn it around, so that people are looking at it in a new way. That is a tremendous art and it really is not an easy thing to do. You've got to do the same thing you do when you're a good teacher. You take someone by the hand and you take them through familiar territory, and then you show them it can be looked at in a new way.

And in doing this, you have to be yourself, right?

Yeah.

And words have to be your instrument for making the point that you find naturally. I'm putting words in your mouth, but I want to get out of you what the creative moment is in this process.

I think everyone will tell you that when you write a column, getting into it and getting out of it are the two most difficult things. Whenever I start something, I want to have some shock value to the reader. I want to grab the reader's attention and say, "I want to show you something. I want to ask you a question or startle you with some kind of a statement so that you'll, right away, be interested in what I'm talking about. And I want to evoke things so that you'll follow my story and you'll come to see things in a new way, even if you don't agree with me at the end." So sometimes, I'll be Socratic and I'll ask a question. "Why is this so?" And someone will immediately say, "I didn't even know that was the case." Or, "I hadn't thought of it that way." You have to figure out a zillion different ways of addressing the reader in your own voice, with your own personality, with your own quirks, your own tics, your own ways of reaching people. And suddenly you have to find words that reflect that personality and that intellectual experience. That's not easy. You know, you can veer off and sound too analytical, too academic. The biggest problem with academics who write op-ed pieces is they're only analytical. They don't reach out and show the person that they're also caring about the issue. You've got to show someone that you care about the issue. Why should someone else care if you don't? And so in some ways you're revealing a compassion, a concern, and it somehow has to be expressed with the verbs and nouns that you pick.

You told me earlier that writing an opinion page for the L.A. Times made you a better writer of history.

Yes.

What did you mean by that?

I had a good, tough editor, who criticized me a lot and taught me a lot about writing, a good copy editor who took out every unnecessary word. So when I wrote this book, The World Split Open, I edited it down over and over and over, and over again. I became that critical copy editor. I put it down and came back to it, looked at it over and over again. I read it as a reader, and I thought, "Is this of interest? Am I glazing over, myself? Am I bored?" If I'm boring myself, my goodness! I really wanted it to be evocative, I wanted to learn how to tell stories well, and I wanted to incorporate analysis in kind of a seamless way that wouldn't pop out and say, "Hey, guess what? Now I'm telling you what it means." I wanted it to be implicit, rather than so explicit.

A good example of this, in preparation for this interview, I read a column that you wrote on terror, because terror is such an important word, as is "terrorism" now after 9/11, in which you reminded us of how terror enters into people's normal lives.

Ordinary lives.

Yeah, in their ordinary lives.

That's right. And I used my own example of when I get off work and I walk through dark streets, and the fear that I often feel if it's very, very dark and unlit, and the kind of terror which people feel on this campus at night, in fact, walking around, and what people feel who are fearful for their children getting bullets thrown at them in drive-by shootings. People have a lot of terror in this society without terrorism. I want to remind people of this level of terrorism that we have already accepted as normal, which is not gratifying and not wonderful, and not a great statement about our society, but nevertheless, it's there.

So, in a way, words and this platform become an opportunity for people to see things in a new light, to see them clearly, but also for many people to see them, so they can see connections that they might not have seen.

Right. It seems to me that writing for a newspaper over those years truly changed me as a historian. Because in some ways, I unlearned what my academic training had taught me, which was to be more wooden, more analytical, less evocative. Since I was already so well trained as an academic, what I really needed to do was to have the training to be a writer, to learn the craft of writing. I'm still learning it. It's quite a difficult craft to pick the right word, to make something a picture in someone's mind, so they can see what you're seeing. Very difficult.

Next page: Conclusion

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See Ruth Rosen's SF Chronicle article on the terror in people's ordinary lives: "Blind, Unpredictable Terror" (12/3/01)